Oliver Stone is on a mission to debunk widely held views about nuclear power and its dangers. Continuing with his recent string of documentary projects, the Oscar-winning director’s latest, “Nuclear,” looks towards the future with both urgency and encouraging confidence that human innovation can reverse the effects of climate change.
Two principles dominate this undeniably informative, if didactically conceived non-fiction piece, premiering at the Telluride Film Festival: One is the role of fear as a deterrent for progress; the other explains how the enormous energy of the supernova that created the solar system remains within the planet in the form of uranium. To go nuclear, Stone argues, is to harness nature’s ancient power.
Stone narrates the entire film. His deep and monotone voice, as he explains the concepts related to nuclear power in great depth or provides historical contexts, colors the already dense material with an overly academic tone. That “Nuclear” is assembled from stock footage, archival pieces, graphs, and talking heads confirms that the dissemination of knowledge, likely via a release on a streaming service, is the goal here and not aesthetics.
To map out how nuclear energy became collectively demonized by both conservatives (who worship at the altar of the fossil-fuel industry) and environmentally conscious liberals, Stone draws a throughline from the possibility of warfare during the Cold War to the misleading coverage of the isolated tragedy in Chernobyl — a major talking point regarding the effects of radiation and birth defects — all the way to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Without discounting these calamities, Stone builds a strong case in favor of nuclear power based on its positive traits as a clean resource that could determine whether we survive the climate catastrophes already unfolding and make it to the year 2050, a benchmark for when the damage may finally become irreversible for living creatures on our flying rock.
The multi-factor reasonings he presents are convincing. For example, Stone lays out how responsibly waste from nuclear plants is contained, particularly in comparison to fumes and other residues from burning other fuels that end up in the atmosphere and bodies of water. Nuclear plants can also produce electricity in larger volumes, at a faster rate, and operating them is inexpensive. And on the question of safety, the filmmaker notes how rarely accidents happen.
Contrasting how some of the world’s most powerful nations have responded to the climate emergency, Stone exposes Germany’s disdain for nuclear, opting instead for renewable sources of energy (wind and solar) that haven’t yet yielded the desired results because the electricity they produce is only a minuscule percentage of what the country requires to function.
He looks at China and its prowess to build dozens, if not hundreds, of nuclear power plants within the next few decades, in an attempt to reach carbon neutrality. Then there’s France, the leader in carbon reduction, with 70% of its electricity needs coming from nuclear energy.
Of course, the United States has fallen behind, prey to the enormous influence of oil and coal. As they have with the electric car and other advancements that threaten their longevity, those industries have done their part to hinder nuclear. Stone points to “An Inconvenient Truth,” the doc on former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s diligent quest to warn the world about the risk of a heating earth, as what should have a turning point but didn’t galvanize us enough.
Stone appears on camera during his conversations with guests in “60 Minutes”/Oprah fashion. Later, he is seen visiting a nuclear plant in France or a company making smaller reactors that could power a thousand homes and become assets to a community on a more grassroots level. Watching Stone front-and-center, engaging with people like a reporter in the latter part of “Nuclear,” reinforces the made-for-TV quality of the overall documentary.
To Stone’s credit, he and his team sought to include an eclectic chorus of interviewees, most of them environmentalists or experts in various sciences. None of the subjects present an opposing perspective to the ideas Stone peddles. Among them, the most unexpectedly singular is Isabelle Boemeke, a young nuclear-power influencer who makes TikTok content to teach others about the myths and possibilities surrounding this topic.
As Stone begins to wrap up his argument, he brings in one more speaker who succinctly sums up the film’s thesis: “You cannot solve climate change without nuclear power, and a lot of it,” affirms author and life-long environmentalist Joshua S. Goldstein. According to everyone on camera, the world’s growing demand for electricity can’t otherwise be met.
“Nuclear” is a reprieve from the fatalistic outlook that otherwise plagues our screens. Stone’s elegiac closing remarks link the potential of this misunderstood and maligned energy source to the grandeur of human consciousness over images of world leaders and landscapes. Fervently, he preaches that nuclear power could bring about a utopian future of global collaboration. And as much as the finale rings a tad saccharine, one can’t help but want to believe him.
Even if the vehicle to deliver it is dull, Stone’s pursuit to disseminate a hopeful take in the face of the current apocalyptic prognosis for our collective existence remains commendable.
“Nuclear” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Venice Film Festival.